Ellipsis Means Cutting: Because Less is More

Ellipsis is both a narrative device and also the most basic idea in film editing. Ellipsis has to do with the omission of a section of the story that is either obvious enough for the public to fill in (their heads) or concealed for a narrative purpose, such as suspense or mystery.

Defining Ellipsis

From the dictionary: The omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous or able to be understood from contextual clues.
From the film glossary: the shortening of the plot duration of a film achieved by deliberately omitting intervals or sections of the narrative story or action; an ellipsis is marked by an editing transition (a fade,dissolvewipejump cut, or change of scene) to omit a period or gap of time from the film’s narrative.

 Alfred Hitchcock famously said: “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out.”

Filmmaking is the representation of life just like Mr. Hitchcock wanted: with the boring parts left out. The goal for filmmakers and screenwriters is to figure out which moments of a story are too obvious so you can get rid of them. This is  called the enter-late-leave-early rule, and here’s what it means. When filming or writing a scene, filmmakers should start that scene at the latest possible moment for it to be understood and felt by the audience. For example, if you are doing a scene about a couple having a fight in a restaurant, it may not be relevant to show the couple leaving home, arriving at the restaurant, parking, and being seated. Perhaps a better kicker for that story beat would be to simply start the scene with the husband ordering filet mignon, and the wife nagging him because they can’t afford it; and it spirals down from there. They are talking divorce before the dessert arrives. Of course, this is just an example. If there’s “juice” in showing the couple getting ready for the night out and driving to their destination, then you should definitely include all those scenes.

So where does the editor come in to all this? Well, editors are the third and final storytellers of any film. Writers and directors will cut as much as they can, but they never know what will work or not. They write and direct scenes hoping to get the message across and obtain the best performances out of their talent. But it is the editor’s job to make the final judgement call. If he can improve on the work of his peers and cut even more “dull bits,” then by all means he has to do it.

Sometimes the Most Important Ellipsis is the First One

One of the most used and boring clichés in cinema is to start a movie with the main character waking up. This has been done in many movies and even books. It might seem natural to show the early moments of a character’s routine, but this is actually a deal breaker for the audience. Eyes shut, a blaring alarm, a lazy character late for work have all been done too death.

Instead of going for something classic, try hooking the audience with a more exciting, relevant moment of the character’s day. What if you open your film with a mean boss shouting, “Damn you, Charlie. You are fired!”? This might even be a cliché as well, but it’s definitely less boring. Most viewers don’t know what the concept of an ellipsis is, but they sure appreciate them subliminally. Use ellipses to your advantage.

As Seen at the MoviesClarice-training-Silence-of-the-Lambs

  • Silence of the Lambs (1991) opens with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) running on a FBI obstacle course.
  • In Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), the movie opens with the protagonist, Cecilia (Mia Farrow), admiring a movie poster.
  • Little Miss Sunshine (2006) opens with Olive (Abigail Breslin) watching replays of the Miss America beauty pageant, which she rewinds right away to watch again.
Notice that these strong openings don’t show the characters getting up in the morning. Instead, they jump a head in time to show each character doing what is perhaps the most important or most joyful moment in their routines. This is a great characterization technique that immediately shares something relevant and peculiar about what make these characters unique.

Why Does It Matter?

Most movies take place over at least a few days of story time. Many take place over several months and years. But how can a film be reduced to 100 minutes of running time?

Ellipsis allow scenes that happen in different locations and periods of time to unfold side-by-side on the screen. Ellipsis can be combined with the Kuleshov Effect or Parallel Editing to strengthen the film’s narrative.

One of the most famous ellipsis in film history happens on 2001: A Space Odyssey where Kubrick cut from a bone to a space station. The interpretation of this match cut  is open for discussion, and I would love to hear yours on the comments below

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